The most popular and well-known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers' alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited from and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. Two poetic figures commonly found in Old English poetry are the kenning, an often formulaic phrase that describes one thing in terms of another (e.g. in Beowulf, the sea is called the "whale road") and litotes, a dramatic understatement employed by the author for ironic effect.
Old English poetry was an oral craft, and our understanding of it in written form is incomplete; for example, we know that the poet (referred to as the Scop) could be accompanied by a harp, and there may be other aural traditions of which we are not aware.
Most Old English poets are anonymous; twelve are known by name from Medieval sources, but only four of those are known by their vernacular works to us today with any certainty: Caedmon, Bede, King Alfred, and Cynewulf. Of these, only Caedmon, Bede, and Alfred have known biographies.
Caedmon is the best-known and considered the father of Old English poetry. He lived at the abbey of Whitby in Northumbria in the seventh century. Only a single nine line poem remains, called Caedmon's Hymn, which is also the oldest surviving text in English.
Specific features of Anglo-Saxon poetry
Simile and Metaphor
Anglo-Saxon poetry is marked by the comparative rarity of similes. This is a particular feature of Anglo-Saxon verse style. As a consequence of both its structure and the rapidity with which its images are deployed it is unable to effectively support the expanded simile. As an example of this, the epic Beowulf contains at best five similes, and these are of the short variety. This can be contrasted sharply with the strong and extensive dependence that Anglo-Saxon poetry has upon metaphor, particularly that afforded by the use of kennings.
It is also a feature of the fast-paced dramatic style of Anglo-Saxon poetry that it is not prone, as was, for example, Celtic literature of the period, to overly elaborate decoration. Whereas the typical Celtic poet of the time might use three or four similes to make a point, an Anglo-Saxon poet might typically make reference to a kenning, before quickly moving to the next image.
Old English literature did not disappear in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. Many sermons and works continued to be read and used in part or as a whole through the fourteenth century, and were further catalogued and organized. During the Reformation, when monastic libraries were dispersed, the manuscripts were collected by antiquarians and scholars. These included Laurence Nowell, Matthew Parker, Robert Bruce Cotton, and Humfrey Wanley. In the 17th century a tradition of Old English literature dictionaries and references was begun. The first was William Somner's Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum (1659).
Because Old English was one of the first vernacular languages to be written down, nineteenth century scholars searching for the roots of European "national culture" took special interest in studying Anglo-Saxon literature, and Old English became a regular part of university curriculum. Since World War II there has been increasing interest in the manuscripts themselves—Neil Ker, a paleographer, published the groundbreaking Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon in 1957, and by 1980 nearly all Anglo-Saxon manuscript texts were in print. J.R.R. Tolkien is credited with creating a movement to look at Old English as a subject of literary theory in his seminal lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936).
Old English literature has had an influence on modern literature. Some of the best-known translations include William Morris' translation of Beowulf and Ezra Pound's translation of The Seafarer. The influence of Old English poetry was particular important for the Modernist poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W. H. Auden, who all were influenced by the rapidity and graceful simplicity of images in Old English verse. Much of the subject matter of the heroic poetry has been revived in the fantasy literature of Tolkien and many other contemporary novelists.
Literary Devices used in Anglo Saxon Poetry
Litotes, the Greek word for "simple," is a member of the figurative language family tree. Since it's not an English word, don't be fooled by the fact that it ends in S. Litotes is a singular noun.
Litotes examples embrace colorful sentiments to express an otherwise bland statement. A litotes is a roundabout way of saying something, using the opposite of your intended meaning to illustrate what you're trying to say. The negative of one thing is used to express the positive of its opposite.
That seems anything but simple, right? Fear not. As soon as you see a litotes in action, it'll all make sense. Let's open the door to litotes territory.
While a litotes is a member of the figurative language family tree, its closest relative is irony. With irony, you expect one outcome and receive another. In truth, a litotes will use irony to emphasize an idea without minimizing its importance.
For example, a friend might expect her roommate to talk about someone who's obviously wealthy by saying, "He's filthy rich." However, when she comes out and says, "Well, he's not exactly a pauper," it's a little unexpected. Again, literary devices are smart ways to spice up our literary lives.
By saying someone is not something, you imply that they are the opposite. If you say Jeremy is "not tall," you're implying that he's short.
"They're crazy to stay together" is straightforward. But consider this subtler example: "They don't seem like the happiest couple in the world." It's a gentler, seemingly ironic, way to say something without having to "come right out with it."
A litotes is a nice way for authors to "beat around the bush." They can touch upon the indelicate in an unobtrusive and inoffensive way. Let's explore more examples:
Her cooking isn't terrible, exactly.
(i.e., It's actually great.)
Ireland is no ordinary country.
(i.e., It's special.)
Geoffrey, this isn't rocket science.
(i.e., It's easy.)
Your commentary on their relationship was less than smart.
(i.e., It was stupid.)
In truth, I can't argue with any of your assertions.
(i.e., I agree with you.)
All in all, she wasn't a bad dancer.
(i.e., She was a good dancer.)
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
(i.e., It's similar.)
He's not unlike his older brother.
(i.e., He's similar.)
They spent seven months apart; that's no small amount of time.
(i.e., That's a long time.)
They don't exactly have an ordinary relationship.
(i.e., Their relationship is different.)
She's not the sharpest knife in the box.
(i.e., She's unintelligent.)
Your kitchen isn't disorderly, per se.
(i.e., It's orderly and organized.)
You won't be sorry you bought a kitchen organizer.
(i.e., You'll be glad.)
His statements are not without truth.
(i.e., They are at least partly true.)
Large crowds of people are not my cup of tea.
(i.e., I dislike them.)
Litotes in Literature
Of course, figurative language was made for fiction writing. Here are some samples that include a litotes:
"The sword wasn't useless to the warrior." - Beowulf
"I am no prophet and here's no great matter." - The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
"No, 'tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door." - Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
"You know, it's really not that hard to put food on the table if that's what you decide to do." - The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wall
"I live at West Egg, the - well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them." - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald